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John le Carré @ 85

My mother adored his books and gave them as gifts to everyone. The only one I had ever read was “The Constant Gardener,” because it was about a relief worker and le Carré had written a foreword to my book, “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories.” That book, thanks to him, is still in print in the English-speaking world. His offer to write the foreword , well, dear reader, that was an offer I could not refuse.

I had been invited to the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva for “war games,” and was picked up at the airport by the PR who had arranged my visit, a Brit.

“How is your French?,” he asked.
“Pas mal,” I answered, perhaps too boldly.

He would be introducing me to the assembled in French, which is still the diplomatic lingua franca. I let that daunting thought slip as he continued his questioning about the book, which was nearly complete. Had we commissioned a foreword? Not yet. “How about le Carré?,” he asked. “He’s deeply involved in humanitarian initiatives. He’s high profile. He’ll sell your book.”

“But can you arrange it?”
“I know his agent.”

I was on un nuage, a cloud. This wonderful news dampened, somewhat, the disturbing effects of the war games. I studied the Geneva Conventions—in French and English—and rode in a jeep into a bombed out city, casualties and corpses everywhere. It was difficult to sleep. I’d brought melatonin, useful beyond the jet lag. I returned to New York and called my publisher: “I’m going to write to le Carré’s agent.”

“Good luck,” he said.
I wondered if he believed me. I wondered if I believed me.

Dear reader, it took about five minutes for le Carré to agree to write the foreword to my book. The manuscript arrived before deadline, pristine, not a comma out of place. I had hoped to meet him to thank him personally, but he sent his agent to the launch in London, which was enough. His presence might have upstaged the relief workers who were present, I thought to myself. And I knew he would never have wanted to do that.

Years have passed and there are more refugees than ever before wandering the world in search of shelter. And more relief workers in grave danger. The Red Cross sign and the UN and NGO logos are no guarantee of safe passage any more.

And where is le Carré ? When he is not researching a new book, he lives quietly on the Cornish coast with his wife. His children are grown. He has written his memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life,” and finally agreed to an interview on 60 minutes. Shy, retiring, modest, a disciplined writer dedicated to illuminating in his fictions the unending hypocrisies and tragedies of governments. He cannot and will not stop, he has said.

And so I have started reading more of le Carré and, finally, appreciate him as a storyteller as well as a humanitarian. This week—because I found it on a giveaway shelf in my neighborhood—“The Russia House.” An epigraph from Dwight D. Eisenhower begins the book:

“Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.”

Two pages in and I was riveted.  Read More 
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Puerto Rico: One Way to Help

I’ve just had a long conversation with MacKay Wolff, one of the relief workers who wrote a story for my book, “Another Day in Paradise,” about his gig as a human rights’ observer during the First Intifada in Palestine. After an earthquake in Turkey, he designed “Child Friendly Spaces,” which could easily be transported by UNICEF, who run the program, to get the kids in Puerto Rico into safe spaces where they can have a bit of schooling, food, and play time, as their families and the island recover.

“Women and children first. Relief at the most elemental level,” says MacKay. “They will certainly be using local clinics and schools in the communities as they get them up and running."

Usually, the basics for human life—food, water, health care, tents for shelter, and control of sewerage—are brought in within 72 hours of a natural disaster by UN agencies and various NGOs. But Puerto Rico is an American Territory so FEMA and the US Military is in charge. President Trump would have to request UN support to augment FEMA’s efforts. This is a major disaster and it’s surprising that he hasn’t. Future preparedness, and a return to participation in the the Paris Climate Agreement, should also be considered, given that this disaster is firmly linked to climate change.

I was pleased to hear that President Trump has temporarily waived the Jones Act, albeit very late, so that ships other than American ships can land on the island with supplies. The French and the British are also working hard on their respective hard-hit islands. In pre-Trump times, collaboration would have been possible. But our allies are wary these days.

PR, our lovely island in the sun. The American Virgin Islands are suffering, too, perhaps even more so. What can we do?

“Often the problems are just logistics,” says MacKay. “The supplies arrive and there are no trucks or truck drivers, no tires for the trucks, no fuel, to deliver them. This island is very dependent on fossil fuel. The roads may be impassable. Air drops are very expensive and not that efficient.”

The military, on the other hand, is very efficient, and essential in such a disaster zone. Aid workers rely on soldiers to--literally--move mountains. Mackay is certain they are working 24-7.

But for the suffering people, the long view, is difficult. No water, no food, sewerage everywhere, and the danger of a cholera epidemic. Hospitals have been shut down because there is no fuel for their generators.

Yesterday, an email arrived from Rebeca Garcia Gonzalez, a long time friend of my friend, Carol Tateishi, the former Director of the Berkeley Writing Project. Rebeca is a native Puerto Rican, teacher and artist, whose information Carol trusts:

Here is an abridged version of her email:

"It has been one of the worst weeks of my life. I didn't know about my dad or other family for 8 days. Finally through social media I found someone who could walk to his house and check on him. I have not yet been able to talk with him to tell him I have a ticket for him to come to CA. My cousins are flooded and isolated even though they live just minutes from the metro area. My other cousins from my mom's village saw all the crops flattened. There was a scary flood that reached their home and brought corpses with it. They are completely isolated. No one is delivering goods to the island. Emergency supplies have arrived but they are not being distributed. There is no signal for planes to use... "

Donations are important, of course, but so are the calls we make to our representatives to keep the pressure up. Since the election, I have had their numbers post-it on my computer.

If you have a chance today, please make just one call. And discuss the logistics of getting supplies distributed. Is it happening? Are the roads still impassable? Suggest that the President request that the UN agencies—such as UNICEF— amplify FEMA’s relief efforts. Ask for details about the children, about the elderly, about the hospitals.

I have just talked to the aides in Senator Gillibrand's and Congressman Espaillat's office. I couldn't get through to Senator Schumer.  Read More 
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